• May 20, 2010
If you live in the U.S. sunbelt or in an upscale gated community, you've probably seen quite a few of those hopped-up electric golf carts trolling around your neighborhood. These low-speed vehicles are great for zipping to the mailbox or heading over to the clubhouse, and the vehicles are currently allowed on select public roads in 46 of the 50 United States. But even though they're perfectly legal in many areas, The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has a pretty serious warning for anyone looking to take these vehicles onto high-traffic areas. IIHS tested both a GEM electric cart and a minitruck in side impact crashes, and the results were sobering to say the least.

The first test was a side impact affair between a GEM EV and a crash barrier moving at 31 miles per hour. The crash test dummy, which was buckled up and in the driver's seat, showed injuries consistent with catastrophic injury or death. IIHS then performed the same test with a Smart ForTwo replacing the barrier, but the results were very similar. The crash, which typically nets relatively low injury risk for vehicles with high safety scores, was so severe that the crash dummy's head almost hits the ForTwo's windshield. Chief research officer David Zuby said that the test shows that these vehicles "weren't designed to protect people in a crash with a microcar like the Smart ForTwo, let alone larger cars, SUVs, and pickups in everyday traffic."

After demolishing a few GEMs, the IIHS then focused its glare on the 2008 Tiger Star minitruck. The Tiger was pitted against a 2010 Ford Ranger in an offset front crash with the minitruck going 25 mph and the Ford 35 mph. The results were similarly catastrophic, with the Ranger dummy relatively unharmed while the Tiger dummy's head hit the steering wheel hard in spite of the fact that it was wearing a safety belt. Hit the jump to read over the IIHS' strongly worded press release.

[Source: The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety]
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ARLINGTON, VA - More states are allowing a relatively new breed of vehicle on public roads, but crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show why the mix of low-speed vehicles (LSVs) or minitrucks and regular traffic is a deadly combination. LSVs are designed for tooling around residential neighborhoods, and minitrucks are for hauling cargo off-road. While these vehicles have a lot of appeal as a way to reduce emissions and cut fuel use, they don't have to meet the basic safety standards that cars and pickups do, and they aren't designed to protect their occupants in crashes.

"By allowing LSVs and minitrucks on more and more kinds of roads, states are carving out exceptions to 40 years of auto safety regulations that save lives," says David Zuby, the Institute's chief research officer. "It's a troubling trend that flies in the face of the work insurers, automakers, and the federal government have done to reduce crash risk."

Practically every state allows LSVs, also called neighborhood electric vehicles, on certain roads, mostly with 35 mph or lower speed limits. Eight years ago just over a dozen states permitted them. Now 46 do. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines appropriate performance and safety standards but has no say in where LSVs are driven. The same goes for minitrucks, which are legal to operate on some roads in 16 states, even though they weren't designed to meet US safety or emission standards. The trend to grant minitrucks access to regular roads began in 2007 and is growing at a quick pace.

"On one hand you have NHTSA saying these vehicles were meant for low-risk, controlled environments or farm use, and on the other hand states are pushing them out onto the highways," Zuby points out.

LSVs are essentially souped-up golf carts that were envisioned as a low-cost, eco-friendly way to tool around gated communities in the Sun Belt where they would have little interaction with larger vehicles. NHTSA doesn't require LSVs to have airbags or other safety features beyond belts since they're intended for low-risk driving. Most minitrucks in the United States are used right-hand-drive vehicles imported from Japan, where they can operate on roads as long as they pass inspection every 2 years. Vehicles that fail often end up exported to North America. Also known as Kei-class vehicles, minitrucks are smaller than conventional pickups and weigh about 1,500 pounds. They must be imported with governors to limit speeds to 25 mph or less to be exempt from Clean Air Act provisions but can go much faster.

NHTSA in 1998 established safety standards for LSVs to be used on "short trips for shopping, social, and recreational purposes primarily within retirement or other planned communities with golf courses." They must be able to go at least 20 mph but no faster than 25 mph. Basic features are required: headlights, taillights, stoplights, turn signals, reflectors, parking brakes, rearview mirrors, windshields, safety belts, and vehicle identification numbers.

Minitrucks weren't an issue when NHTSA wrote LSV rules. The agency in 2006 amended the standards to include vehicles with gross vehicle weight ratings up to 3,000 pounds, and now 4 states require minitrucks to meet LSV standards. Still, NHTSA believes minitrucks should keep off the road. In a July 2009 letter of interpretation, the agency said that because "these vehicles are not manufactured to meet U.S. safety standards, NHTSA cannot endorse their use on public highways."

The Energy Department estimates there are 45,000 LSVs on US roads. New LSVs qualify for up to a $2,500 tax credit under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Many states also offer tax incentives.

"Lost amid the talk about so-called sustainable transportation is any regard for the safety of people who ride in LSVs and minitrucks," Zuby says. "We're all for green vehicles that don't trade safety for fuel efficiency."

For eco-minded consumers, a better choice for regular traffic is a crashworthy hybrid like the Toyota Prius or another fuel-efficient car. Also worth a look are the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, two battery-powered cars slated for delivery later this year.

Crash tests demonstrate risks: To show that LSVs and minitrucks are no match for even the smallest of regular cars and pickups, Institute researchers tested two GEM e2 electric vehicles and a Changan Tiger Star minitruck. The GEMs were in side tests, one using a moving deformable barrier and the other using a Smart Fortwo as the striking vehicle. The Smart is the smallest passenger vehicle on US roads that meets crashworthiness standards. The Tiger struck a Ford Ranger XL regular cab pickup in a frontal offset test. The Ranger is one of the least pricey small pickups on the market. It earns an acceptable rating in the Institute's frontal crashworthiness test, the lowest rating in its vehicle class.

The test dummies in the GEMs and the Tiger recorded indications of seriously debilitating or fatal injury to drivers in real-world crashes. In contrast, the Smart performed well and the Ranger reasonably so in similar crash tests.

"There's a world of difference between vehicles that meet crashworthiness standards and those that don't," Zuby says. "It may be time for Congress to step in to extend federal passenger vehicle safety standards to LSVs or else restrict them to the low-risk traffic environments they were designed to navigate."

GEM side tests: The first GEM test was a side test in which a moving barrier representing a pickup or SUV crashes into the test vehicle at 31 mph. It's the most demanding test the Institute runs. Dummy measures suggest severe or fatal injury to a real person. In contrast, the Smart's airbags and safety cage protected the dummy from serious injury in an earlier side barrier test.

To show that the injury risk isn't only due to the aggressive barrier, a second test was run with a Smart crashing into a stationary GEM at 31 mph. The Smart's front intruded into the GEM's side so much that the belted dummy's head came close to hitting the Smart's windshield. The GEM dummy had injury measures indicating serious or fatal injury for real occupants.

"Watch the test footage, and it's obvious how devastating the side crash is to the GEM. It doesn't resist the crash forces at all," Zuby says. "GEMs and other LSVs weren't designed to protect people in a crash with a microcar like the Smart Fortwo, let alone larger cars, SUVs, and pickups in everyday traffic."

People in GEMs are protected by little more than safety belts and thermoplastic body panels. Doors are optional, though the crash-tested models had them. GEM e2 prices start at $7,395. They're made by Chrysler Group Global Electric Motorcars, the largest producer of low-speed electric vehicles. The company notes that its vehicles comply with LSV standards limiting maximum speeds to 25 mph and says customers typically drive GEMs on roads with speeds of 35 mph or less. It "recommends the operation of GEM vehicles within the standards set forth by NHTSA."

Frontal test of Tiger: The Institute conducted a frontal offset test between a 2008 Tiger Star minitruck going 25 mph and a 2010 Ranger going 35 mph. The Ranger has standard front and side airbags and electronic stability control. The Tiger has safety belts but no airbags. Without airbags, the Tiger driver dummy's head hit the steering wheel hard. Measures indicate the likelihood of serious neck injuries. In contrast, the Ranger dummy emerged unscathed.

The Tiger's outdated cab-forward design put the dummy's legs into the crush zone, resulting in severe injuries. The left leg and right foot were trapped by the clutch pedal and intruding structure. It's the kind of damage the Institute routinely saw when it began offset tests in 1995.

Unlike most minitrucks, Tiger Trucks are assembled with US and foreign parts in Oklahoma. The company says its vehicles aren't intended for use on public roads and notes that some models meet LSV and emission standards. Minitrucks are fuel-efficient but not necessarily environmentally friendly since their classification as off-road vehicles exempts them from emission requirements. They run on gasoline, diesel, gasoline/ethanol blends, or battery power, depending on the model. Prices typically start at about $7,000-$8,000 and can go much higher.

For on-road driving, Zuby recommends consumers bypass minitrucks and spend more on a standard pickup to get crash protection and a vehicle that's okay to drive on all roads.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 39 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      "Low-speed vehicles and minitrucks shouldn't share busy public roads with regular traffic"

      Before condemning any vehicle in crash safety testing they should compare it to a motorcycle crash test safety. Why is that there is such a double standard? Of course they aren't as safe as a volvo, but its probably still better than a motorcycle. If it was a minitruck vs a motorcycle who'd win?

        • 4 Years Ago
        They paired up the test vehicles the way they did for a reason. People in the market for low-speed vehicles are not looking at motorcycles, many are likely looking at them as a cheaper alternative to small pickups like the Ranger and small cars like the Smart ForTwo. That the low-speed vehicles did significantly worse in a crash against their more conventional counterparts sends a message that this is not a safe alternative to those vehicles for road use.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I wonder if IIHS feels the same way about handbuilt fiberglass Amish buggies, which are also on public roads in a number of states.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I drive a GEM E2 and I think of it like a bike. I wouldn't drive it on streets where I wouldn't ride my bike. But in my beach community of Hermosa Beach, CA, I use it for a dozen trips a week and leave my SUV in my garage. You don't have to be a genius to know better than to challenge a car or truck.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Bring on the 2,500 lb golf carts!
        • 4 Years Ago
        Aaron, when you are on a bike or on foot, you are presumably more aware of your surroundings. When you are in a golf cart, I imagine you feel more invulnerable and occupied plus you are in the middle of the road as opposed to being on the sidewalk or the side of the road.
        I think the problem is that people in EVs feel like since they're on 4 wheels and have a roof above their vehicle, they are safe. You wouldn't believe how many of my friends are absolutely sure that they do not need to wear seatbelts while in the rear seat, that it's safe to do so.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Really IIHS? And how safe are those things called MOTORCYCLES?!?!

        Let the market decide how much extra crap they want to pay for, and quit shoving lbs and lbs of garbage on our cars. This is why I drive 2100lb hondas in the city. They are fantastic. This is also why I drive a 3700lb Audi on the highway. I CHOOSE. Not you. Quit trying to look out for everyone, and let consumers make a choice on how much safety equipment they want to have.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Warning!!!

      The IIHS released a report today warning all bicycle riders that using bicycles on public roads was dangerous in the extreme, with fatality rates several times higher than those suffered when riding in normal cars.

      The report noted that government safety regulators should consider requiring side impact rails, rider airbags and impact resistant bumpers, as well as overhead protection, for all future bicycle models.

      Insurance company spokesmen pointed out that since insurance was not a requirement for bicycles, raising rates for them was not possible, and urged the government to make bicycle insurance mandatory.

      In other news, the Honda FCX Clarity was voted Car of the Century by Sierra Club Magazine. Honda hopes to begin delivery of the Clarity, which is expected to sell for approximately $200,000.00, sometime in the third quarter of 2021.

      • 4 Years Ago
      This is just stupid the results aren't a surprise. And I do not see the point in even doing a test of this. If you drive one of these golf carts on the road you need to watch your ass the same as any bicycle, scooter or motorcycle rider. I mean for gods sake the gems doors are made of flimsy plastic, if you buy one expecting anything more then basic cheap neighborhood transport then I don't know what to say but if people want to drive these and understand the risk involved let them. Don't get all nanny state and prevent people from choosing what they want to drive.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I am not surprised here.

      Early EV's needed to be lightweight because the battery tech sucked so bad at the time.
      I'm glad this is no longer the case, and EVs can actually be practical, safe, and fun to drive.
      • 4 Years Ago
      next test, Kenworth hits Bicyclist....results fatal....
      • 4 Years Ago
      More regulations.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I am a bit confused... I know GEM & Tiger vehicles are banned from the road, but are Smart cars? They are just as unsafe, but maybe it means low speed mini cars only.
        • 4 Years Ago
        They are not "just as unsafe"...

        http://www.iihs.org/ratings/ratingsbyseries.aspx?id=632

        It gets good ratings across the board and has the strongest roof crush in its class.

        Know what you are talking about before you post.

        (and for the record, yes, I own one as well as a mid size SUV).
        • 4 Years Ago
        Smart = Very safe for its size, even for vehicles out of its class it is safe.

        Head hitting windshield = Occupant in the GEM hit the Smarts windshield.



        Please do some research and READ before you even bother commenting again.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Smart high speed crash survivability....

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ju6t-yyoU8s
        • 4 Years Ago
        @dave

        First, I knew Smart cars got high saftey marks but doesn't "... so severe that the crash dummy's head almost hits the ForTwo's windshield..." make you think this is untrue?
        • 4 Years Ago
        Lolz! rfraleigh = Gilda Radner from old SNL: "...never mind."
        • 4 Years Ago
        The dummie sitting in the other car is almost hitting the Smart's windshield from the outside.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I have always wanted one of those little trucks. I cannot explain why, but I really want one.
      • 4 Years Ago
      This news will not be welcome at the "Villages" in Florida!
      • 4 Years Ago
      DUH.
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